He was so good that the opposing team, Kentucky, its coach, Eddie Sutton, and ABC analyst Dick Vitale gave him a standing ovation when he exited the game.
On Jan. 25, 1987, Navy’s David Robinson had possibly the greatest individual effort Rupp Arena has ever seen.
His 45 points are the most ever by a player in a men’s college basketball game in Rupp, regular and postseason. As are the 10 blocks he had in that game. The senior also pulled down 14 rebounds and, if dunks were kept as an official stat, he would have flirted with a quadruple-double with his eight slams.
The only thing to spoil his performance? His 18th-ranked team lost, upset by unranked Kentucky, 80-69.
“It’s bitterly frustrating to lose a game when David plays so well,” Navy Coach Pete Herrmann said afterward. “That was probably the best game I’ve seen Dave play.”
I was lucky he scored only 45 points.
Kentucky center Rob Lock, who was tasked with the difficult job of guarding David Robinson
Robinson’s 45 points equaled his career high and the Naval Academy record. He shattered the Rupp Arena record of 39 points, by Freeman Williams of Portland State. Only one other player has had more points in Rupp: Moore Traditional High School’s Manuel Forrest had 47 points in a one-point loss during the semifinals of the 1981 Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen.
Only three other men’s college players have scored 40 or more in Rupp: Texas A&M’s Elston Turner scored 40 in 2013, LSU’s Chris Jackson had 41 in 1990, and UK’s Derrick Miller poured in 40 in 1990. But Robinson’s performance is the only triple-double by a men’s college player in Rupp history.
The 7-foot-1 center blocked layup attempts — and even a three-pointer — and scored 12 of Navy’s first 14 points and 19 of the first 23. Ten of those points came on dunks. The halftime score was UK 40, Robinson 21.
“There are not enough superlatives to describe him,” UK center Rob Lock said. Asked whether he was surprised by Robinson’s dominance, Lock said: “I expected him to get every one of the points. He’s the best I’ve ever played against. I thought I was a pretty good defensive player, but I couldn’t defend him at all. I was lucky he scored only 45 points.”
Robinson, the only player from the Naval Academy to play in the NBA, would finish the game 17 of 22 from the floor, 11 of 12 from the foul line. Poor shooting and turnovers from the rest of the Midshipmen doomed the team.
With fourteen seconds left in the game and the outcome decided, Herrmann decided to give his star player a tribute. He called time-out and sent in a substitute for Robinson. The Navy coach would say later, “I thought that David deserved the applause of the Kentucky people who are real basketball followers.”
The crowd of more than 23,000 stood and applauded, along with a UK bench that included Sutton and freshman Rex Chapman, who countered Robinson’s gem with 22 points. The UK coach later said he had often asked a coach for permission to go into the opposing locker room to congratulate a player, but he had never stood and applauded an opposing player from the sideline..
“I just thought it was a sensational individual performance,” Sutton said.
Robinson, a future NBA Hall of Famer, was too disappointed by the loss to dwell much on his record-breaking performance and the ovation he received when he was called off the floor. But he did say, “I like this atmosphere, I really do. In my career, I’ve played better under these conditions — big crowd, against a good program, in a real good basketball atmosphere.”
Later, Robinson, decked out in his dress blues, strode out of Rupp Arena and up the stairs to the adjoining hotel, clutching a souvenir game program.
“My dad,” Robinson said. “I always take him a program. He collects them.”